Marshall, Minn. — “Recall” is an alarming word food for companies, especially when it’s caused by contamination. The ramifications can be long lasting and the recovery arduous for a business faced with a recall.

Producing and marketing safe products is paramount for food companies — particularly those with meat products — so numerous steps are taken to reduce or eliminate contamination threats.

“Multiple barriers are put up through a meat production facility to ensure that no harmful bacteria make their way onto the final product,” says Carissa Nath, AURI meat scientist. This “hurdle concept” may hinder bacterial contamination, but emerging processes and technologies can increase protection.

Photo by Rolf Hagberg

Irradiation is a cold process that virtually eliminates pathogens such as E. coli 0157:H7 and salmonella. Supplied by X-rays, electron beams or gamma rays, irradiation has been used on meat and consumer products for years. It was approved for fruit, vegetables, herbs and spices in the early 1960s. Irradiation was approved for pork to help control Trichina in 1985 and for poultry and beef in the 1990s.

The process is also applied to everyday consumer items such as bandages, diapers and cosmetics.

While the irradiation process is highly effective at reducing pathogen risks, consumer apprehension and cost are holding up widespread acceptance, even though food scientists contend there is negligible risk consuming irradiated items.

Food-safety advocates have undertaken multiple education campaigns to raise consumer awareness and reduce fear associated with the process. However, with the large capital outlay for equipment, irradiation technology is only affordable for large processors.

Pasteurizing with pressure

High Pressure Pasteurization (HPP) is also a cold process, so it won’t negatively effect taste, texture or nutrition. It is a post-package application that is primarily used for cooked and cured meat products. The packaged food is placed in a vessel filled with water and extremely high pressure is applied to foods in all directions. This destroys the cellular structure of pathogens and extends shelf life.

“One of the greatest advantages of HPP over irradiation is the fact that it is not considered an ingredient, so it does not have to be included on the treated food’s label,” Nath says. “With more and more consumers looking for foods with minimal added ingredients, this is a huge advantage. The technology is applied to already packaged foods, so you greatly reduce the likelihood of recontamination.”

As with irradiation, cost is a limiting factor. Initial capital investments, as well as HPP operating and maintenance costs, are not affordable for most small to medium-size

meat processors.

E. Coli vaccine

Several pre-harvest interventions are also being examined, the latest being an E. coli vaccine. The first-ever vaccine was released in January and is intended to reduce the prevalence of the E. coli bacteria in live cattle’s digestive tracts, which lowers contamination risk when the cattle are harvested. Unlike other processes, the vaccine intervention is applied at the farm, not the processing facility.

“All meat-processing facilities in the state are inspected regularly to ensure proper food-handling practices are being followed,” Nath says. “Facilities that can’t afford to install the newest technology continue to provide safe and nutritious products by following established sanitation and meat handling procedures. But these new technologies are more tools that can be used to ensure that what consumers are buying is safe.”